'This means as much as winning the Gold Cup' - Our Duke puts Power and Harrington in dreamland
Robbie Power sat in the Mater Hospital late last year, tears snaking down his war-ravaged face, having been told that he faced six months on the sidelines with an eye-socket injury.
In the half-year that followed, he won a Gold Cup, two other Cheltenham Festival races, three Grade Ones at Aintree and, perhaps most significant of all to his heart, an Irish National.
Few bar Power, a local to Fairyhouse, and Jessica Harrington paid much heed when a prism attached to his goggles saved him the pain of missing six months. Little could he have imagined what lay ahead on what can be such a volatile road in the world of jockeys.
The performance of Our Duke, the heavily backed 9/2 favourite, was nothing shy of sensational. Harrington had concerns that the ground had gone against him; he instead produced an effort off a rating of 153 that already puts him bang there as a Gold Cup contender.
And that is the incredible thing: Harrington (70) has gone in the space of a month from a position of never having a Gold Cup runner to having a winner, and now a more likely winner again. Sizing John and Our Duke is the new Denman versus Kauto Star, two different types of talent housed in the same stable.
It is a tale to dominate the narrative of the season. Our Duke, handy throughout, won by a staggering 14 lengths, with last year's second Bless The Wings in that spot again. Abolitionist and Thunder And Roses came next.
Harrington admitted that her serene exterior masked that she was "shaking inside". "It is fantastic. The horses are in great form and it is just amazing.
"I was surprised at how well he did it. I saw the three of them (up front) going away and he just kept going. He was very relaxed. For a horse having his fourth chase ever in his life, it was a great performance."
She added: "He jumped beautifully; Robert rode him with such confidence. He was convinced that he was going to stay and he rode him like that.
"We all have to get there but he looks a Gold Cup horse. That's why he didn't go to Cheltenham this year as we wanted to wait and go to the Gold Cup next year. We'll keep him and Sizing John apart and see what happens. I haven't raced him much - he has very few runs under his belt."
Bookmakers' quotes of 10/1 for next year's Gold Cup look generous if anything. "This means a huge amount to me," Power said, "just as much as winning the Gold Cup."
That Bless The Wings secured €100,000 for coming second for Gordon Elliott negated the inroads Willie Mullins had made into his lead in the trainers' race, the champion having scored earlier with Diakali (9/4) and Renneti (5/2). Both were utterly magnificent in classy races, though the lifeless run of Jezki made life much more straightforward for Diakali.
Jezki's rider, Barry Geraghty, often vied with Power for rides at the Harrington stable. He left Fairyhouse yesterday with a suspected broken arm, Minella Foru coming down early in the National.
Mullins admitted that he and Diakali "don't see eye to eye". "He does his work on his own before I greet the gallops in the morning. He has his own ideas. Renneti is like that too but he has a lot of class and he is one that could go back on the Flat."
Mullins is clinging on in there in the title battle, but barely. He reported Annie Power on course for Punchestown, presuming she gets through intensified work between now and then.
Project Bluebook (9/2), the first horse John Quinn has trained for JP McManus, became the first English-trained winner of the meet when landing the juvenile hurdle.
Dandy Mag, the diminutive mount of Paul Townend, bravely tried to make all, but Geraghty found just enough space between that one and the favourite, Ex Patriot, to burst ahead near the wire at odds of 9/2.
Noel Meade's splendid Festival got better when Showem Silver (10/1) won readily in the handicap hurdle in the increasingly familiar Philip Reynolds silks. The mount of Sean Flanagan could be seen at the Galway Festival, while Reynolds' Presenting Percy is to go for the Grade One staying novice event at Punchestown, with Penhill to take him on in a sizzler.
Notwithstanding retained rider Geraghty's woe, JP McManus had a fine day, with Slowmotion (13/8f) and White Arm (9/2jf) scoring. The performance of Samcro (8/13f) in the bumper will have Gigginstown and Elliott dreaming of the days head. He was monstrously impressive.
"He'll go for the Champion Bumper at Punchestown," Elliott said, adding: "He could be very good."
Which is about as much of an understatement as saying Our Duke is very good.